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The Original Doctor Feelgood
Foundation: the Guitar Instrumental Collection 1964-1998
America is about the freedom to imagine a life and then go out and make it happen. When that life is an artist's, and he succeeds, we all become richer. When that artist reaches into his heart and delivers enriched portions of our own base culture to us we are uplifted by his hand.
Doc Watson's life and music are a pure expression of that freedom. Born dirt poor in the farmed out hills of North Carolina and blinded in infancy, all Doc Watson had going for him was his innate honesty, willingness to work hard for what he wanted, a deep, gut level understanding of the building blocks of America's music and an uncanny ability to wed and filter those elements through his guitar and voice.
Each of the couple of dozen records Doc has made is a gem of virtuosity, swing, good songs and heartfelt performances. For years I've been telling folks that there are two Watson CD collections they had to own. The first is The Essential Doc Watson - a lengthy ( it was originally issued as two LPs) CD capturing the full breadth of his total mastery of all forms of American rural music from ballads to blues, from songs as old as the hill communities they come from to early commercial country music of pioneers recording artists like Jimmy Rodgers and Charlie Poole and Doc's longtime favorites, the Delmore Brothers.
The second is Doc Watson on Stage, another fine CD crammed with nearly two hours of live music that orginally took up two long LPs. No live folk/bluegrass recording comes close to On Stage for warmth, charm and folksiness. Totally acking in pretension and suffused with uncorrupted musicality, Doc and his late son Merle ( who's guitar wove a spotless backdrop guitar to support Doc's flawless picking) invite you into their living room for a journey through the rugged, ragged, and righteous musical history of the southern mountains. It's part pilgrimage, part party, part guitar lesson and as thoroughly pleasing a listen as you'll find on disc. Like The Essential Doc Watson, Doc Watson on Stage is unaduterated entertainment as well as timeless music.
Now there's a third disc to add to the basic Doc Watson section of your CD shelf. It's called Foundation: the Doc Watson Guitar Instrumental Collection. In fact, if you're a serious guitar player, you might make Foundation your first Doc Watson CD. Issued by Sugar Hill, the premier modern bluegrass label, Foundation spans the time from Watson's classic Vanguard sides of the '60's through his acclaimed 1990's sessions. Producer Jim Mills culled eight different Vanguard records and three Sugar Hill releases to assemble sixteen guitar workouts that distill the Watson range and style.
The steel string guitar is America's instrument. Doc Watson is the greatest acoustic steel string guitarist America has. He invented modern country flat-picking. From Norman Blake to Tony Rice, every serious country flatpicker owes his existance to the style doc Watson invented. He came up with it because he was a lousey fiddler and wanted to get the chromatic torrents great country fiddlers can run off. Singlehandly, he gave guitarists the tools to compete with banjoists and fiddlers for solo space in bluegrass bands. Doc's innovations also made the new folk-based acoustic chamber music of players like Davis Grisman and Bela Fleck possible by giving their guitarists a way to play melodic counterpoint and conplex single line harmonies.
Doc revolutionized flatpicking by playing fiddle tunes note for note on the guitar and Foundation is thick with transposed fiddle tunes in every possible setting. Black Mtn. Rag, Billy in the Lowground, and a medly of Fiddler's Dram,/Whistling Rufus/Ragtime Annie are played in his orignal classic style with Merle laying in a solid rhythm while Doc rips through the tunes and nearly breathless variations. June Apple is picked against the background of a standard bluegrass band, while Tucker's Barn, a haunting and obscure tune and Stone's Rag feature lead duets with a smooth, sure fingered fiddler (the liner notes unfortunatley don't identify any of the backup musicians). There's a tight banjo duet on Lonesome Banjo where Merle gets to show off his solid 5-string style. Doc's rippling swing-style makes use of a studio rhythm section on Nashville Pickin'.
But that ain't all.
Doc is also the the most complete finger picker ever. Doc's thumb can boogie a bass line like the left hand of a New Orleans whore house pianist while his right syncopates a melody into a dance of fairies in firelight. There is no blues, country, folk, ragtime, or swing style at which Doc cannot completely bury the competition (not that he'd try). He's the fastest, cleanest, most lyrical steel string guitar player ever. Period. The only player to come close is mainstream country music's 1950's electric guitar king, Merle Travis, who's output and range ( long limited by commercial considerations) are dwarfed by Watson.
Watson's mastery of fingerpck style guitar is represented with seven very different cuts. The sultry lope of J.D. Loudermilk's Windy and Warm is balanced by the earpoping speed of Doc's Guitar. Watson conducts a pickers tour of ragtime on this set . The chunky harmonies of Mother Maybelle Carter's autoharp gem Victory Rag flows naturally into the classic syncopation of Dill Pickles Rag and culminates in fast flyng freight train of Merle Travis' showpiece Cannonball Rag. Doc's abiltity to meld such seemingly disparate elments and traditions culminates in the swinging version of Rainbow he plays using what sounds like a variation of Chet Atkins' flat pick plus fingers style.
Whatever style Watson plays, (and he plays them all) he's as good as it gets. There is no artist who better embodies the strengths of America's rural musical heritage and no performer who will leave more enduring recorded legacy. These three CDs are gems from a treasure trove of American roots music. And a great introduction to this particular tradition.